India’s Eton

The historic Mayo College in Ajmer in Rajasthan is one of the most renowned educational institutions in India. A look at the fascinating evolution of this school

WORDS: N.B. RAO

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WHEN he was just 47 in 1869, Richard Southwell Bourke – who was popularly known as ‘Lord Mayo,’ reflecting his Irish origin from the county of Mayo – became the fourth Viceroy of India.
Known as “one of the ablest administrators” in British India, he contributed significantly in transforming the infrastructure in the country, taking up railway, irrigation and other public projects across the subcontinent. It was also during his tenure that the first census was conducted in India.
Also in 1869, Col FKM Walter, who was the political agent of Bharatpur Agency, suggested setting up a school “for a large number of pupils, with a staff thoroughly educated, not mere bookworms, but men fond of field sports and outdoor exercise.”
Richard visited Ajmer in 1870 and addressing a ‘darbar,’ where other members of the erstwhile rulers of Rajputana were present. He expressed the desire to set up a college “devoted exclusively to the education of the sons of Chiefs, Princes and leading Thakurs.” The members of the ruling families contributed £70,000 for the project.

Funding the institution
The British government paid for the land and also the other expenses incurred by the institution, including the cost of the staff. Ruling families of yore funded the institution.
Unfortunately for him, Richard was knifed to death by a convict at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands in 1872, when he went on an inspection tour. But three years later, one of India’s oldest public schools – Mayo College – opened its doors.
Robert Bulwer-Lytton, who was the Viceroy of India between 1876 and 1880, put it succinctly when he addressed students during a visit in 1879: “Ajmer is India’s Eton and you are India’s Eton boys.”

Construction of the institution began in 1877 and was completed eight years later; it cost a royal sum of Rs3.28 lakh. The Indo-Saracenic design, submitted by one Major Mant, emerged as a classic symbol of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Besides being quoted even in today’s architectural courses, it is preserved in the archives of the British Museum in London.

Today the school, which is affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education, Delhi, is spread over 300 acres and features a built-up area of 90,000 sq m, nearly 180,000 sq m of playgrounds, swimming pools, sporting facilities, music rooms, hostels, libraries and other modern facilities.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Oman brought back memories of another era, when Sultan Said bin Taimur, the father of the current ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said, was known to have studied in Ajmer.

Sultan Said mastered English and Urdu at the Mayo College from 1922 to 1927. Of course, even Sultan Qaboos studied in India and was a student of the late Shankar Dayal Sharma, the former President of the country, who taught at Pune, where the Omani had his education.

Master plan
Almost four years ago, the general council of Mayo College came out with a master plan to maintain the heritage character of the institution, to establish a strong residential school environment for the future, to add new facilities, to make it an energy sustainable campus and to develop a synergy of usage between the three schools (Mayo College, Mayo College Girls’ School and Mayoor School).

“The existing Indo-Saracenic architectural style has been inspired by Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture, and combined with Gothic Revival and Classical styles of colonial architecture,” said the note to the master plan. “The major concern is to preserve and maintain the unique identity of its physical environment while making changes through renovation/restoration and the addition of new buildings and facilities.”

According to the management, the special character of Mayo College gives it a unique position not found in any other boarding school in India or even globally. “This character needs to be sustained and built upon…to establish a strong residential school environment for the future.”

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Historic city
Incidentally, Ajmer – which is surrounded by the Aravalli mountains – was once ruled by Prithviraj Chauhan, the last Hindu king of Delhi. Rich in heritage and culture, it has also been selected under the Indian government’s flagship Smart Cities Mission.
The city also has the Dargah of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and is a sacred centre of pilgrimage. Other heritage sites include the Nasiyan Jain temple, Mandir Shri Nimbark Peeth, the Taragarh fort and the Adhai Din ka Jhonpra.
About 10 km from Ajmer is the Pushkar, a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Sikhs, and also well-known for its annual animal fair, which sees thousands of camels, cattle and horses being brought and displayed.
Another prominent attraction for tourists at Ajmer is the Jubilee clock tower, built in 1888 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.